A week before my 17th birthday, I was summoned by my father for a serious talk.
To say this request was out of the ordinary would be an understatement. We'd never been particularly close, and my dad was definitely not the type to sit down for a heart-to-heart. But he said the matter was important, so I agreed to talk with him the following morning.
Being an impatient teenager, I couldn't stop thinking about what the news could be. Was my dad splitting up from my stepmother? Were we moving?
The curiosity was killing me — so much so that I actually woke him up in the middle of the night to find out exactly what was going on.
He sleepily rubbed his eyes and told me the news that would change my life forever.
He reminded me that a decade earlier, my mother had been involved in a medical malpractice suit shortly before she passed away. In the shadow of her death, I was just an 8-year-old kid, trying to make sense of it all. I only vaguely remembered her going to court.
That night, my father told me that the money from her lawsuit had been waiting for me in a trust fund for years. Upon turning 18, I'd receive $250,000 — and could do whatever I wanted with it.
My quarter-million-dollar burn: how I spent the cash
Over the next year, I couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement whenever I thought about the money. I was a middle-class kid in the northwestern suburbs of Illinois, and this was more cash than my brain could comprehend. I felt like anything I wanted would be mine for the taking.
I planned to attend community college to figure out exactly what it was I wanted to do — although my dad made it clear I would be enjoying this path to self-discovery outside his house. So when I turned 18, my father not-so-subtly nudged me out on my own. But not before asking me for a $10,000 loan.
I was caught off guard, but felt like $10,000 out of $250,000 wasn't that significant. He never told me what he needed the money for, and I felt uncomfortable pressing him for details. Instead, I just handed him a check...and off I went, a teenager with hundreds of thousands of dollars — and no clue how to spend it responsibly.
Instead of community college, I enrolled at Purdue University in Indiana for a year — a last-minute decision that seemed a lot more appealing than attending junior college. I'd had a bug to get out of my hometown, and I had the chance to do it now. The out-of-state tuition cost me roughly $15,000 a semester, but I didn't mind. Since I had plenty of cash, I paid it upfront — in full.
But after a year, I wasn't loving the experience and felt drawn to return home. Most college kids would have stayed put, not wanting to deal with the expense of moving and transferring schools. But I had more than enough cash to make any moves I wanted, spending about $30,000 in the process.
The trust fund served as a security blanket of sorts: I knew it would be there to support me, but I was also well aware that it wouldn't be enough to live off forever. For this reason, I prioritized completing college and transferred to Northern Illinois University my sophomore year, which cost about $8,000 per semester. Yet again, I paid my tuition upfront and didn't think twice about it.
It was around this time that I made my first investment. After all, I wanted to make a few smart choices with the cash. My cousin and I decided to buy a one-bedroom apartment together in Chicago and rent it out. We purchased it pre-construction for just $187,000 — an investment that would fortunately pay off later. I put down $50,000, which also covered my cousin's share, with the agreement that he'd pay me back over time.
Otherwise, the next four years were punctuated by fun, carefree partying, while I earned a degree in industrial technology. I was young and had fully adopted a live-in-the-moment attitude. I wouldn't think twice about spending $30,000 on a custom motorcycle or dropping $2,000 on a bar tab.
Before I knew it, partying became my top priority. I can honestly say my trust fund served primarily to bankroll my bad habits — and it wasn't long before that balance started to dwindle.
My money wake-up call: learning to live without disposable income
Thankfully, this whole running-out-of-money process was gradual, which gave me some time to start thinking about the future.
By senior year, I was struggling to pay my tuition. I still had about $30,000 left in my trust fund — and I was trying to make it last as long as possible.
Not wanting to drop out, I reached out to my father for help. I received an icy reaction from my dad, who was disappointed in how I'd mismanaged my money. While he didn't know all the details, he caught the gist: I'd blown through nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
With my back up against the wall, I reminded him of the $10,000 I'd given him a few years earlier. He owed me. This line of reasoning was successful in prompting him to hand over the cash — but quickly marred whatever relationship we had left. Nasty words were exchanged, which led to several years of not speaking to one another.
But even though my father repaid the loan, I still had to take out about $10,000 in student loans my senior year to cover the rest of my costs.
Despite this setback, I graduated college in 2003 and began working as a financial aid adviser for an online college. My salary wasn't much, but I was bringing in enough to rent an apartment and pay my bills.
It was around this point — when I was just 24 — that my fun money finally ran out. Since I had an alternate income, I was able to sustain my lifestyle. But the thought of no longer having an unlimited supply of disposable cash really hit hard: For the first time in my adult life, I was forced to save and budget for non-essential spending. Nights out on the town, traveling, buying whatever I wanted — those days of impulse buying were long gone.
As depressing as this was for me, it was also unexpectedly motivating. I knew that sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn't going to improve my situation. So my first order of business to regain some financial security was to put the condo I'd bought with my cousin in Chicago up for sale — which yielded about $350,000.
I used half the money to buy a townhouse to share with my then-girlfriend. I took a new job as an operations supervisor and gradually progressed in my career. My financial picture steadily grew more optimistic and I felt stable.
Unfortunately, things didn't work out with my girlfriend and we broke up. But I soon met a great girl named Emma*. We hit it off, and with an urge to start fresh, I sold the townhouse and Emma and I bought a single-family home together, got married and began a new chapter.
What I learned from my wild inheritance ride
Now that I was sharing my life with someone, the need to budget and save became an even bigger priority. My wife has always been a cautious spender — a lifestyle I was still getting used to. But without the cushion of the trust fund, I began to master the art of self-control and living with less — and soon learned to embrace this mindset.
Fast-forward about eight years. Today, Emma and I have four kids — my stepchildren and our two together — and I have a great job as an operations manager at a heavy manufacturing company. I manage about 50 employees every day — a role I feel uniquely prepared to tackle.
Soon after coming into my windfall, I was bombarded with people who were only interested in my money. Acquaintances were constantly throwing investment pitches my way, and friends expected me to foot the bill. I gradually became skilled at reading others' motivations and problem-solving, which has translated well in my career.
My money views have also continued to evolve. Having so much cash and then losing it all taught me the value of a dollar in a way that no other opportunity ever has. I'd always imagined graduating college, then immediately getting a great job, driving a cool car and owning my dream house. Losing the money opened my eyes to how much these things really cost, and how much hard work and time it actually takes to attain these goals.
Today, it feels good to say that my financial picture is an optimistic one. And the best part is that I've created this all for myself through persistence and hard work. I currently have $20,000 in savings and another $100,000 in my 401(k). I have no debt to speak of, and my credit score is above 800.
I've thought a lot about what I'd do if I had the chance to do it over again. I think I'd actually spend more on traveling and adventure — and, of course, less on partying and self-destructive behaviors — because I've realized that memorable experiences are more valuable than material things. I also know that investing the money more wisely would have been a good idea — and helped me stretch the cash a bit longer than six years.
But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned is how important it is to be a good parent. As my children grow into young adults, I can't in a million years imagine handing them a check for $250,000 with absolutely no advice.
Looking back, the biggest question mark for me is why on Earth my dad did this. What did he expect to happen? Asking my father this question is definitely on my bucket list — and I hope it happens. Although we reconciled somewhat four years ago after the birth of my oldest child, the fights we had about money will always be between us.
And that's something I hope never happens between my children and me. I'm really looking forward to shaping their childhood years with all the help and guidance I can offer — both emotionally and financially. I plan on using lessons from my wild journey to help prepare them for success in their own financial lives.
And if they ever come into a chunk of cash the way I did, you can bet we'll be sitting down and making a plan for it.
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